You're in for a treat with Carole's second novel, Just Shy of Paradise.
It was Lily’s fourth birthday. Her mother had tried to get her to eat something before cake, but the picnic lunch was Grandma’s chicken casserole, and it looked exactly like cat vomit. So while Lily waited for her mother to cut the cake, she decided to follow a big, blue butterfly. Everyone was so busy talking that no one noticed her wandering away.
Lily danced after the butterfly and watched it sail over the bank of Little Bear River and disappear into the brush. Her mother had warned her to stay away from the water, high from spring runoff, but as she watched it swirling past, Lily was mesmerized. She saw the shiny rocks at the edge of the river, and one rock looked pink. Pink was her favorite color. It wouldn’t hurt to just see if she could reach the rock. Lily leaned as far as she could, her fingers skimming the bottom, but she couldn’t touch the pink rock. It wasn’t very far out, though. If she stood where the water was shallow, she could reach it for sure.
Lily pulled off her shiny, black Sunday shoes, then peeled her socks off and carefully set them on the bank. She stepped into the frigid water and shuddered. She glanced back at her mother, who was still unaware she had left. Lily leaned down to pick up the stone and felt her feet slip. With a small plop, she landed in the fast-moving river.
Frantically, she flailed her arms, trying to stay afloat, but the current quickly swept her away. Then she went underwater. The water quickly filled her lungs, and she couldn’t breathe. She would die, and all she could think about was that she hadn’t even gotten to eat a piece of her cake, with her named spelled out in pink frosting. She had even sprinkled the cake with colorful candies.
Then something happened. Lily felt hands grab her lacy dress and then her waist. Someone dragged her out of the water and set her on the bank. She briefly saw his face, which seemed to glow in the afternoon sun. He was dressed in white. She knew he was an angel when she heard him ask God to make her live. When she opened her eyes again her family was there, screaming and asking what had happened.
“An angel saved me, Mommy. A little angel.”
Sometimes the responsibility of being saved by an angel was almost more than Lily Anderson could bear. On the twenty-fourth anniversary of the miracle—also her birthday—Lily hopped into her beat-up Geo Metro and turned the key. The engine sputtered once, then quit.
“Dang!” she said aloud, flipping back her long blond hair in frustration. She tried to start the car again and then noticed that the gas gauge showed empty. She was confused, since she’d just filled up on her way home from her job at the hospital the day before. When Lily got out of the car, she spotted a rubber tube on the ground and realized someone had siphoned and stolen her gas. Annoyed, she bent down to pick up the hose. With the high cost of gasoline, there had been a rash of gas thefts. Just one more reason Paradise didn’t live up to its name, she thought. An angel might have saved her when she was four, but things were certainly less than heavenly now in the small Cache Valley town.
Lily opened the garage door and slid the cover off her grandmother’s white Chrysler LeBaron. It had been a while since anyone had driven the car. Grandma Bergman had been too ill to drive it herself, but occasionally when she felt up to it, Lily would drive her around town. They’d head up to the cemetery and pause at the family plot, where Grandma would unsnap her large black handbag, fish out a lacy handkerchief, and blow her nose—an eruption that sounded like a goose honking.
Last fall, Lily had driven Grandma Bergman up to Porcupine Dam while the leaves were golden, crimson, and orange. Lily had prayed her grandmother would live to see the leaves change, and she did. She died the day before Halloween.
Lily scooped the key out of the ashtray and after a few false starts, the LeBaron’s engine roared. As she backed the large car out of the driveway, she noticed the faint odor of camphor oil, which her grandmother had always rubbed on her arthritic joints. Tears sprang to Lily’s eyes when she slid her hand along the tan leather upholstery. Driving the car now felt like a betrayal, even though her grandmother had wanted her to have it.
First, Lily drove to the post office. No sooner had she arrived than she realized she’d forgotten her post-office-box key, so she’d have to go inside and ask for her mail.
When she stepped out of her car, Lily heard a sharp intake of breath.
“Heavens to Betsy, it’s just you.” Doris Davenport’s hair was cut short and dyed blond, defying her age of nearly eighty.
“Just me,” Lily said as she realized Doris, who was coming out of the post office with her mail in hand, must have been startled to see Esther Bergman’s car again. “My car wouldn’t start—the gas was siphoned out.”
“Well, well, doesn’t that beat all?” Doris exclaimed. “First the bishop and now you.”
Lily glanced at her watch without even noticing what time it was. “His gas was stolen too?”
“Not that I know of, but someone dropped a load of manure on his lawn the other night. They propped up a cardboard sign that said, ‘Since you’re so full of crap we thought you’d enjoy this.’”
Doris whispered the word “crap.” Now she leaned in and held her mail in front of her mouth, apparently trying to shield her words from prying lip readers, who Lily could only assume were looking out of their upstairs windows a good block away. “And the Williams had a pipe bomb in their mailbox. Blew that beautiful box to kingdom come. You know Brother Williams hand-painted an especially lovely little scene on the side of it. Now they’ve resorted to just a plain old metal box. I hate to say it, but Paradise just isn’t paradise anymore. Newcomers—they change everything. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times to your grandmother Esther. I’d say, ‘Esther, we’re strangers in Paradise.’” Doris eyed Lily and then smiled. “Of course, even though you haven’t lived here long, you’re not a stranger, being Paradise’s own miracle.”
Lily inwardly groaned at the mention of the miracle. Small towns never forget.
Doris got into her car and stuck her head out the window. “So are you seeing anyone?”
“Not really. See you later, Doris.” Lily turned on her heel and strode into the post office. Lily smiled, keeping her secret to herself. She had Rob, but she hadn’t even told her mother about their relationship, because she still mulled over the reality—the dream that had finally come true. Even though they hadn’t even held hands yet, she believed he was the one. She could almost feel it deep within her, much the way Grandma had always felt something good happening. “Something good is brewing,” she would say, and then she’d tap her heart and add, “I can feel it.”
Lily asked Mrs. Reed, the Paradise postmaster, for her mail while doing her relaxation breathing, focusing on the tiles on the floor instead of Mrs. Reed. Lily was in therapy for social anxiety, and even asking for mail was a challenge.
“Happy birthday,” Mrs. Reed said. “Looks like a card from your brother. How’s he doing with his new job?”
Lily was surprised her brother Daniel had sent her a card, since he’d almost forgotten the birthday celebration the year before.
Mrs. Reed handed Lily a stack of envelopes. “How many children do they have by now?”
“Five,” Lily answered while thumbing through her mail.
“Are you dating anyone, dear?”
Lily felt a sudden tightness in her chest. She would love to tell someone about Rob, but not the postmaster. Someday soon, when it was official, she would be able to spread the news. “Gotta go. Thanks.”
She hurried to the car, jumped in, and drove faster than usual through town, her mind swimming with angels, miracles, and the new love of her life. She was thinking about Rob when she heard the whine of the siren. She’d forgotten that one of the favorite hiding places for the highway patrol was in the Car Service parking lot, where they blended in with the broken-down vehicles. Lily pulled off the side of the road, feeling her heart race and her brow begin to perspire. The uniformed officer sauntered up to the window.
“License and registration, please.”
Lily peered up at his mirrored sunglasses, her bright blue eyes reflecting back at her. With a sigh, she thumbed through her wallet and pulled out her driver’s license. Her hands trembled, her heart pounded, and her face reddened as she located the car registration papers in the glove compartment. She handed them to the officer. Breathe, two, three, four. Breathe.
“Sorry about your grandma. Fine lady. And hey, it looks like today’s your birthday. Happy birthday.”
Lily felt calmer. The officer didn’t look familiar but was so nice; surely he wouldn’t give her a ticket. He strolled back to his patrol car. Passersby strained their necks as they drove by, trying to glimpse the unfortunate person who had been pulled over. Humiliated, Lily slouched in the seat.
When the officer came back he handed her a ticket for going six miles over the speed limit. “Slow down.”
“Some birthday present,” she whispered, feeling insulted and cheated. After the officer drove away, she glanced in her mirror and could see red splotches forming on her neck. Lily deliberately replaced her negative thoughts with affirming ones, taking care to breathe slowly. “It’s my twenty-eighth birthday. I will have a great day. The ticket doesn’t matter.” She continued to recite this as she slowly drove down the steep grade to the Bergman riverside property. “I will have a great day.”
When Lily's valuable fishing pole is stolen, her Native American friend Sky is charged with the crime. But things are not always as they seem in this intriguing tale of romance, secrets, and betrayal.